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Conservation Corps Hits the Right Chords : Privately Sponsored East Bay Group Is a Combination School and Employment Agency

Times Staff Writer

I learned from you, more than I can

even measure. It’ll take me time to fully

understand, Just what you’ve done. And I want to thank you all, For all that you have done. You’re the heart, you’re the soul of

this trip. I’ll carry you with me, whatever I

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become. --Song by Lou Tamler

Lou Tamler was announcing his resignation after two years as a supervisor in the East Bay Conservation Corps.

He strummed the final chord of his farewell ballad. The applause, whistles and calls of “Lou,” “Lou” faded, and Joanna Lennon rose to speak.

Lennon was crying.

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In a while, Lennon, the 36-year-old executive director of the East Bay Corps managed a few words to Tamler, the rest of her staff, and 80 or so street-hardened young men and women in her audience.

In its 2 1/2-year history, the corps has become a kind of a combination school and employment agency of last resort. It is a thread to the world of work for young people in Oakland and other East Bay cities who otherwise would very likely spend their lives on welfare, behind bars, dealing dope or, at best, serving hamburgers at fast food counters.

“Youth are becoming increasingly alienated and unemployed in the United States,” Lennon said. “At the same time, our environment is really deteriorating. Conservation corps wrap up a solution to these problems in a single package.”

East Bay Corps members are in their late teens to mid-20s. They include people like Charles Krauter, 19, who would be “broke and bumming around” without the East Bay Corps; Terry Lindsey, 18, who dropped out of high school and “just stayed at home,” and James Kelly, 25, a respected corps crew leader who got robbed, shot the robber, was jailed and then got extra time for fighting. Unlike most conservation corps today, including the California Conservation Corps, the East Bay Corps is small (about 100 members) and privately sponsored. It has unusually broad academic requirements.

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It is a role model for an apparent national trend toward similar conservation corps, including--to some extent--one planned for Los Angeles.

Every East Bay Corps member presents a different challenge, and most of them present a considerable challenge.

Take, for example, Ann Nowlin and Darren Shepherd.

Nowlin took five minutes off from repairing a greenhouse in a community garden in Hayward to talk about her background:

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Married eight years ago as a 16-year-old high school sophomore, she bore a child the same year, quit school in her senior year, worked in McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, then as a cocktail waitress and a hotel maid. Her reading and math are equivalent to a third-grader’s. She’s attending East Bay Corps classes, and wants to get into construction work or go back to school.

Nowlin is a more or less typical East Bay Corps member. Darren Shepherd, 21, however, is an anomaly because he has been to college. He attended Ohio State for one year. Then he ran out of money, moved to Los Angeles and got work as an airport baggage handler and other, more profitable jobs like selling dope, stealing cars and robbing people at gunpoint. “The main source of money was the gun,” he said.

Climbing the Ladder

Shepherd climbed the corporate ladder of his drug dealing “organization,” from a “watch out” who stood guard watching for approaching police, to a dealer, to a security man who made sure the right amounts of money moved into the right hands, to security chief, which he described as “a middle management position.” Along the way, Shepherd had 15 months of enforced vacation behind bars, 11 months for grand theft auto, and another four for an assault and battery charge that grew out of a gang fight.

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At one point, Shepherd said he made $2,200 a week selling drugs. He thought that since he was so successful in illegal ventures, perhaps he could make a lot of money legally. He moved to Oakland to start over, heard about the East Bay Corps from a cousin, and joined the corps eight months ago. “My attitude has changed. The way I think of it is, I’ve grown up,” he said. His plans are to go to UC Berkeley and get a degree in business administration.

Lennon estimates 20% of her corps members are on parole, an average of eight get fired every month for offenses ranging from insubordination to smoking dope, and corps members themselves estimate that half of them smoke marijuana during breaks.

While there is no “typical” corps member, they are mostly black (84%) and mostly male (77%). And, according to Lennon, they are mostly illiterate and unable to hold decent jobs when they first walk through the East Bay Corps’ doors in the cavernous former Del Monte cannery in West Oakland’s industrial district.

More Genteel Population

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In summers, when the corps’ ranks swell with high school students, the population becomes more genteel, but the foundation of the group remains the same.

Lennon has grave reservations about her program recently having become almost entirely black and male. She has hired a recruiter to seek Latino, Native American, Asian and Anglo members. “The East Bay is a community of men and women of every different color, and it’s very important that the conservation corps reflect our community,” she said.

One goal of the East Bay Corps is to prepare its members for jobs, so they can be employed as something more than domestics, dishwashers or fast food clerks. In some cases, corps supervisors consider themselves both lucky and successful if one of their “graduates” can hold any job at all.

The corps also strives to improve the environment in the widest sense of the word--everything from home life to wildlife.

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Most importantly, Lennon said, the corps seeks to improve such intangibles as self-esteem and quality of personal relationships of its members, and to give them an understanding of their communities and the importance of participation.

“Our main objective here is to prepare young people for life. Getting a job is kind of an added benefit of that, but what we think is most important is for us to help corps members clarify their goals and objectives in every facet of their lives.”

With youth unemployment skyrocketing, there’s a national movement toward establishing conservation corps. Roughly three-fourths of the 35 or so corps in the country have been founded in the past two years.

The East Bay Corps got its start early in 1983 when Richard Hammond, a San Francisco lawyer and former undersecretary of resources in the Jerry Brown Administration, saw the need for such an organization in the East Bay region around Oakland.

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Federal, Private Money

Hammond sought money from the federal Summer Youth Employment Program and private foundations, plus contract money from government agencies for whom conservation corps members would work. He raised $170,000, and Lennon was hired to get the corps on its feet.

Perhaps the newest corps of all is on the drawing boards of attorney and Democratic Party leader Mickey Kantor, who chairs the incipient Los Angeles Conservation Corps. Kantor said he is forming his board, and he expects a government-funded program to be operating by next March or April.

Several factors make the East Bay Conservation Corps stand out:

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--The East Bay Corps is private. Fees for services performed bring in 83% of $1.3 million budget. The rest comes from private and government grants.

--The East Bay Corps requires at least one full, unpaid day a week of academic work to supplement the four paid days of physical labor, and the corps is raising money for an unusual, computerized, individualized learning center.

--Like the East Bay Corps itself, Lennon has become something of a national role model, frequently flying to places as diverse as Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis to participate in or help plan a conference or workshop on conservation corps.

“One of the things that makes the East Bay Conservation Corps a role model is that Joanna Lennon’s staff is so very good, and she is such an excellent program director,” said Peg Rosenberry, project director for the Human Environment Center, a Washington, D.C., information clearinghouse for conservation corps.

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“Her staff is so good because of its empathy for the kids and its real caring for where the kids are coming from and what they need to have to get them on a new road,” Rosenberry said.

Rosenberry noted that the East Bay Corps further serves as a national role model because it is the country’s only year-round corps operating primarily on a fee-for-services basis.

The principal advantage of the fee-for-service system--as opposed to the much more common, governmentally sponsored corps--is that a fee-for-service arrangement vastly increases independence from political pressures. The big disadvantage is that such programs have a less stable funding base than government programs.

“We run like a business,” Lennon said. “The community must buy into our program, or we go out of business. To teach corps members that they must give to their community, they must be part of that community. Therefore the community must become part of our program by contracting with the corps for work, or we can’t achieve our purpose.”

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When Joanna Lennon stood to respond to Lou Tamler’s farewell ballad, politics and funding were the furthest things from her mind.

No one--least of all Lennon herself--remembers just what she said that afternoon after Tamler finished singing to his unusual audience.

What everyone does remember is that the 27-year-old supervisor cared enough to write his song and sing it, and Lennon, along with other tougher than normal people in the room, cared enough to cry.

Tamler resigned in order to become a schoolteacher. But he will continue to supervise the corps’ leadership training program and develop curriculum for other classes.

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When Tamler came to work at the East Bay Corps he was, in Lennon’s phrase, “a bleeding heart liberal.” He was not the kind of man to supervise streetwise young people.

The Lou Tamler who left the East Bay Corps was “a wiser, tougher liberal,” said his program supervisor, Bill Gorgas, 37, who described Tamler as “a man who melded the needs of the corps with the abilities of the corps members, and got results that were a credit to both himself and his crew.”

Changing attitudes and developing abilities are objectives of the East Bay Conservation Corps, although the idea is not so much to affect staff as to teach young men and women.

Corps supervisor Axel Debus described many corps members when he said: “You have second and third generation welfare mentality where people don’t know how to work.” Corps membership is limited to one year, in which time supervisors like Debus and other corps employees seek to imbue their workers with a work ethic, and to give them some basic, salable skills.

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Rudimentary Lessons

The corps’ formal lessons about employment are so rudimentary they appear simplistic: work hard, dress neatly, be on time, be courteous, work effectively, use tools properly, don’t fight, drink or smoke dope on the job.

East Bay Corps members spend the first four days of every week learning those lessons as they work at minimum wage for park districts, cities, flood control and water districts, nonprofit organizations and public works departments doing the kind of hard and dirty physical labor that union members don’t mind having others perform in their territory. In fact, it is work that probably would remain unaccomplished were it not for the East Bay Corps.

Corps members muscle huge boulders into place to build retaining walls in remote park areas, smash concrete sidewalks for urban tree planting projects, reconstruct rotting bridges over creeks, build playgrounds at homes for battered women and their children, chop trails through woods, build fences, set cobblestones, pull stumps and generally undertake one hard task after another.

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Lennon has scores of letters from dozens of officials of organizations that have hired the East Bay Corps. The messages are peppered with words like “innovative,” “invaluable,” “quality,” “cooperative,” “diligent,” “professional,” “appreciated,” “enthusiastic” and “consistent.”

L.A. Critzer Jr., general manager of the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District, wrote: “Your crews have impressed us with their speed, spirit, dedication and hard work. They have shouldered the difficult tasks of renovating, restoring and rehabilitating many District lands and facilities. . . . “

An official of the Alameda County Public Works Agency wrote Lennon to say: “we were initially skeptical about getting involved with (your) youth training program because of rather unimpressive performance of previous training programs with which our district has been involved. But you and your staff’s supervision and management of this program has been the major contributor to the successful program that it is.”

They Mean Hard Work

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And this from the director of the Yosemite Institute, an organization dedicated to helping students increase their understanding and appreciation of the environment and their place in it: “What I did not realize at the time I agreed to the project was that when the East Bay Conservation Corps says they will work, they mean hard work. The total amount accomplished by your corps members in just over a day of work would take our small staff weeks to match, or literally thousands of dollars if done by outside contractors.”

Jim Geiger, president of the California Urban Forests Council, wrote that, “As program manager for the California Department of Forestry, I had responsibility for the Jobs Bill program. The East Bay Conservation Corps was one of 97 grant recipients, but exhibited superior performance from the beginning.”

In a letter to Gov. George Deukmejian, David E. Pesonen, the East Bay Corps chair, and recently appointed general manager of the 60,000-acre, 45-park East Bay Regional Park District, wrote that, “The East Bay Conservation Corps has an impressive track record providing conservation project assistance to public agencies, but perhaps more important is its model educational and job skills training program which helps prepare primarily disadvantaged youth for a productive future.”

Academic education augments on-the-job training two nights a week and on Fridays, when corps members must attend classes where they learn rudimentary reading, writing and math skills. Any corps member whose academic competency is below seventh-grade reading and writing or ninth-grade math (and that includes many who have been graduated from high school) must take courses to improve those levels. Other corps members must take higher level courses. Anyone who has not been graduated from high school is required to work toward a general equivalency diploma, which amounts to a high school diploma awarded by the state. Anyone with the ability and desire to tackle night school classes can do so to satisfy corps requirements.

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Beyond basic reading, writing and mathematics courses, where students start with lessons in how to read a measuring tape and understand a checkbook, there are classes on leadership, career development, women’s studies, use of tools, first aid and money management.

Never Held a Job

Corps members’ reading, writing and math abilities generally hover between third- and seventh-grade levels, many of them have never held a job, many more have never held a job with a future.

For most corps members, school probably is their most difficult responsibility. They struggle with the simplest academic tasks.

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The struggle is made easier by individualized study plans. Every corps member’s lessons are tailored to his or her ability and background.

Within a year, plans call for installation of a self-paced, individualized program called the Comprehensive Competencies Program, which combines computers, audio-visual aids and printed material in a way that will further individualize each corps member’s education.

“Perhaps the most important philosophical tenet of our program is that we think education is just as important as work. You can’t make it in the world today without basic schooling, so we insist that every corps member achieve at least basic competency in academic skills.

“The lives of most corps members when they first get here are pretty fragmented,” said Jim Sternberg, the corps’ education coordinator. “For some of them, the success they have here may be the first success in their lives. When they leave here, they take that in any number of directions to improve their lives.”

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Sternberg said there is no statistical measure of the East Bay Corps’ success.

“Our success can’t be measured in terms of hard numbers. But a fair number of our former members come back to talk with me. Some have gone to school, some have got a job, others have got married and some have gone to jail.

“Where we’re successful, we may have improved their employability, their education, their self-esteem, their understanding of the community and what it means to participate in it, or just the general quality of their lives and their relationships.

“In terms of those criteria, I’d say we’re successful three-quarters of the time. Given the odds against the corps members who come to us, I’d say that’s a very high rate of success.”

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